For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Eating the Ashes: Seeking Rehabilitation
within the US Penal System
  • Veronica Compton-Wallace
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Eating the Ashes: Seeking Rehabilitation. within the US Penal System
About the Author

Veronica Compton-Wallace was convicted of attempted murder in the Hillside Strangler case in California, and is serving a life sentence in the Washington Correctional Center for Women. Before her arrest, she was gaining recognition as a fledgling film actress and producer in Hollywood.

Ms. Compton-Wallace's 21 years as a prisoner afforded her a rare view of the evolution of correctional theory and practice. In this study, she relates heart-rending images of lives needlessly destroyed, and lives incredibly redeemed, through some of the best and worst examples of penal design and theory.

Her focus is on those programs that are most successful in producing rehabilitation (which she defines as emotional healing and cognitive well being). She presents case studies to illustrate what can be accomplished, and provides informational resources to encourage the expansion and replication of such programs.

About the Book

Serving a very long prison sentence, Compton-Wallace has experienced some of the best and worst of correctional theory and practice. In this study, she relates heart-rending images of lives in disarray and describes programs...

Serving a very long prison sentence, Compton-Wallace has experienced some of the best and worst of correctional theory and practice. In this study, she relates heart-rending images of lives in disarray and describes programs that have been successful in producing rehabilitation.

In Eating the Ashes, Ms. Compton-Wallace provides a brief history of the shift in penal theory, from "treatment" to "punishment," during the past few decades and provides anecdotal illustrations of the effects that shift has made.

She describes programs that have proven successful in the restoration or rehabilitation of criminals. She relates some of the painstaking effort it took for her to earn the right to be a working part of such programs; she provides case studies of other successful examples, and gives credit to those who provided the counseling.

Sadly, such programs are now increasingly scarce or nonexistent.


Preface

A growing number of writers are presenting the voices of incarcerated females. What is unique in Veronica Compton Wallace’s work is the fact that she is the ultimate insider, as a long-term inmate herself. There is no danger of her “going...

A growing number of writers are presenting the voices of incarcerated females. What is unique in Veronica Compton Wallace’s work is the fact that she is the ultimate insider, as a long-term inmate herself. There is no danger of her “going native”; she is. There are truths shared by her fellow inmates and friends that might never be exposed to a researcher wearing a “visitor’s” badge.

She can tell us not only what a cell in “the hole” looks like, but what it feels like to call that isolation unit home for six months. She has witnessed and felt both the violence and the caring that occur 2a-7 inside the wire. She knows what happens and doesn’t happen after lights out. She knows where things have been hidden and how it’s done. She learned first to survive, and then to lead in this mini-society that most people would rather not acknowledge. Veronica Compton Wallace did not arrive at The Washington Corrections Center for Women as a model prisoner by any means. Over the years, a transformation has occurred which has taken her from angry rebel to a tireless campaigner, teacher, and worker for her fellow inmates. This book tells her story and theirs.

The reader will do well to keep in mind that one inmate’s perspective of a condition or an event does not always account for the big picture in a large institution. At any given time, numerous scenarios and dynamics are being played out which may give the impression, to an individual who feels put upon anyway, that her situation is unjust and out of control, when in fact it is the result of institutional priorities.

The programs and activities Veronica describes that assisted in her rehabilitation are constantly under fire, and are often portrayed as “draining scarce resources” or being too “soft on crime” and criminals. The fact is that women by and large respond to constructive programs. The return on investment for a rehabilitated ex-felon far outweighs the cost of programs that produce change.

We can logically assume that societies have always struggled with the concept of crime, the motivation to commit criminal acts, and the punishments and treatment of convicted individuals. The history of this struggle is rich, often shocking and repulsive, and even humorous. Concluding that the struggle existed long before mankind began to write about it does not present much of an intellectual challenge.

The definition of a “crime” is influenced by the variables of culture, time, degree and gender. Murder and rape are considered far more justifiable in some societies than others. Substance abuse is tolerated in some European countries to a much greater degree than in the United States. There was a time when trafficking in human beings, or in mind-altering drugs, was not considered a criminal act, but petty thievery might land an “offender” in a distant penal colony to serve a long sentence under the harshest conditions. Even more absurd are many of the “reasons” (crimes) for which women have historically been convicted, among them promiscuity, adultery, and failure to obey husbands! It is intriguing to contemplate what acts our prehistoric ancestors might have considered acceptable versus those things that were regarded as crimes against the society.

Those who contemplate human nature and motivation search for “reasons why.” Early childhood development theories, strain, social bonding, social learning theories, and mental illness are all considered factors in “why” the criminal deliberately commits acts that are harmful to the individual and general good. Critical theorists might argue that oppression and socio-economic factors are largely to blame for criminal activities. Joanne Belknap argues in her book The Invisible Woman that if socio-economic factors drive men to commit crimes, then women are to be commended for their relatively low rate of crime in light of the fact that they experience even more pressure than men do.

WCCW now takes in some 1000 new admissions per year; 85% of them test below 9th-grade level for basic skills (reading, writing, and math). Fully 50% of that group is performing below the 5th-grade level. Washington State law requires those below 9th grade to be enrolled in school, but provides no postsecondary opportunities to incarcerated persons. Until 1995, Washington inmates could take lower level college courses offered at prison sites through the community colleges. A two-year Associate Degree in technology (vocational) was also available. Although the demand for post secondary education is not great among inmates, there are still some who look beyond the GED and minimal job skills training now offered.

In the fall of 1999, I gathered 37 interested female inmates to explore avenues for education beyond those offered by my department at Washington Corrections Center for Women. Veronica Compton was the only attendee who had “outside” funding, and enough college-level credits to qualify for a bachelor’s degree completion program offered by The Evergreen State College. Two years later, in June of 2002, representatives from Evergreen attended our annual graduation and awards ceremony to present Veronica the degree of Bachelor of Science in Human Studies. Much of the information presented in this book was generated during or was used as a part of her course of studies. Other parts come from a detailed and copious diary that she has maintained for many years.

In this book Veronica goes beyond the crime and considers the programs and services that might bring about behavioral change. Specifically, she makes a case for different thinking between the way men are incarcerated and the way women “do time.” She calls on her experience as a long-term inmate to explore the “punishment and treatment” of women offenders. Only recently, as the number of incarcerated women has risen drastically, have we begun to get serious about changing the male model of prison. The potential returns to taxpayers and most certainly the saving of lives and human dignity in the rehabilitated female felon dictate that we continue to change the current model.

Larry Richardson

Education Director

The Washington Corrections Center for Women


Introduction

FIRST REALIZATION — "THE ASHES." I am a woman who was found guilty of attempting the most serious of crimes — murder. This book deals with what I found and learned in an experience that few women have ever had, and none has ever written about in much detail. In my twenty-plus years as a prisoner, I have been afforded a rare view of...

FIRST REALIZATION — "THE ASHES." I am a woman who was found guilty of attempting the most serious of crimes — murder. This book deals with what I found and learned in an experience that few women have ever had, and none has ever written about in much detail. In my twenty-plus years as a prisoner, I have been afforded a rare view of correctional evolution. Having experienced some of the best and worst of penal design and theory, I’ve chosen to highlight what I’ve found to prove successful; success being measured in human emotional healing and cognitive well being, the combination making for what we think of as rehabilitation.

When I came down off drugs, in prison, and began to realize what I had tried to do, I had two choices — to deny or rationalize in an attempt to cover up my fear of reality, or to try to find that unknown which had led me there. I chose the latter. To find the answer, I had to take a gut wrenching inventory of my soul. Reading in sociology and psychology added value, but as the unknown was beginning to take shape, I was to discover I was not alone in my misconceptions.

At first, I considered myself to be out of place. I didn’t belong there, in that crowd of dangerous criminals. Someone had made some sort of mistake. I didn’t know why, but I thought the others were truly deviant; not just individuals who had made a crazy mistake. So I tried to evoke my toughest façade, as a way of protecting the person I really was inside. In the meantime, to maintain avoidance of reality and responsibility I found ways to get drugs to take me away from “the horror of it all.” I expected that the prison system would recognize what was wrong with me and set it right. Wasn’t that “rehabilitation,” after all? Back in the 1980s, fragments of programs designed earlier to achieve the rehabilitation of the prisoners remained, though many program titles now served only to cover the institution’s two major objectives: retribution and control, with emphasis on the latter.

During the early 1980s, Washington State was weaning itself from the 1960-70s rehabilitation model. Dubbed the “model prison” in the United States in the 1970s, by 1980 Purdy Treatment Center for Women had begun to lose its luster. The traces left were behavior-modification practices which — given the political temperament of the day — were forced to get in synch with the new pendulum swing of a punishment theory. The prison’s name was changed to establish the beginning of this hard-edged new era: Washington Correctional Center for Women.

Unknowingly, I was a participant in these new corrections-minded punishment theories (adverse behavior modification). Gone were the once open discussions between staff and prisoners. Attempts to educate the women received less and less funding. Everything was changing…



Pages 220
Year: 2002
LC Classification: HV9471 .C657
Dewey code: 365'.43—dc21
BISAC: SOC030000
BISAC: LAW000000
Paper
ISBN: 978-0-87586-164-7
Price: USD 21.95
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ISBN: 978-0-87586-165-4
Price: USD 28.95
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